Monday, December 21, 2009

The Latest Technology... Is Racist!

LOL! How about a collective "Woo-Sah!" before we get ourselves worked up here? I'm going to share with you today a video that will hopefully make you laugh at least a little bit, as well as make you think. I find that I can actually be more logical and rational when I can see the humor in things so let's hope you operate in a similar fashion.

This video depicts the latest face-recognition software from HP. It is designed so that the built-in webcam on their newest media computers will follow the user's movements. We can all imagine the cool factor in this, right? Imagine all of the people filming themselves dancing to Beyoncé's "Single Ladies" and how magnificent their homages could have truly been if only their webcams could have followed their movements... Watch the video and then we'll chat.

Okay, so by now, hopefully you've had a bit of a chuckle and you are thinking about how or why this could be considered racist. According to HP:

We are working with our partners to learn more. The technology we use is built on standard algorithms that measure the difference in intensity of contrast between the eyes and the upper cheek and nose. We believe that the camera might have difficulty "seeing" contrast in conditions where there is insufficient foreground lighting.

Alright, I can accept that it has to do with technology and algorithms and honestly, I either slept through the algorithm stuff in college or killed those brain cells at a party so I'll accept that it is a reasonable scientific explanation. For me, herein lies the problem... One must assume that the technology was tested rigorously and that those tests had to include actual test trials with people moving around to make sure that the lens followed them. Based upon this demonstration and the HP statement above, one must also assume that either HP had absolutely no black people testing these cameras (or only really, really, really light ones like myself), or they did have African American testers and one of the following scenarios took place:
  • The black webcam testers had poor results but HP figured that most black people don't use computers anyway so it wasn't a concern
  • The black testers had acceptable results because their glasses of red Kool Aid provided the necessary contrast
  • HP decided to forgo testing since they assumed it would work with black people in much the same way that the security cameras follow their African American employees throughout the building
  • The black people intimidated the cameras into not following them by wearing shirts that read, "No Snitchin'"
I'm thinking it was most likely a case of no or not enough black camera testers and that is yet another reminder that for many, black people are seen more as an afterthought than part of the customer base or even mainstream population. I can guarantee you that the directions for using the webcam are available in both English and Spanish, and probably a few other languages; but sadly—much like many people in our society—the cameras do not recognize black people as people at all. Hmm, I wonder if the webcam would follow Tiger Woods?

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